Category Archives: teaching tips

Knowing ABC names isn’t important to beginning readers

When most children are four, they can say, or should I say sing, their ABC’s properly, except for the L-M-N-O part.

But can they pronounce the basic sounds associated with each of those letters?  I know they can’t.

For example, I ask what sound is “pictured” by “y.”  The child says “w” as in “why.”  Or I ask what sound is represented by “w.”  The child says “d” as in “double you.”  The children are giving me the sound of the letter’s name, not the sound represented by the letter.  This causes confusion when they try to pronounce CVC words.

Look at the disconnect between how letters are named and the basic sounds which those names represent.  In the case of vowels below, the basic sound is considered to be what has been called “short vowel sounds.”

ABC name    basic sound    pronunciation

A                      a                     ay

B                      b                     bee

C                      k                     see

D                      d                    dee

E                      e                     ee

F                      f                     eff

G                      g                    jee

H                      h                    aech

I                      i                      eye

J                      j                      jay

K                      k                     kay

L                      l                      el

M                     m                    em

N                      n                     en

O                      o                     oh

P                      p                      pee

Q                     kw                   kue

R                      r                      are

S                      s                      ess

T                      t                      tee

U                      u                     you

V                      v                      vee

W                     w                     double you

X                      x                      ex

Y                      y                      why

Z                      z                      zee

Of the basic sounds of our language, only eight are represented by letter names which begin with that sound.  (Sounds represented by more than one letter, such as “ow” and “th” are not shown here.)

This made me wonder how important knowing the names of the ABC’s  is compared to knowing the sounds those letter characters represent.  I have concluded that it is the sounds which are important, not the names or graphics we assign to those sounds.

To prove this, look at the sounds which children from other countries say when they see certain  letters.  When children in Germany see “v,” they pronounce the “f” sound in English.  Those same German children, when they see a “w,” pronounce it like a “v” sound in English.  When children in Russia see a “p,” they pronounce it like an “r” sound in English.

So the picture/character/graphic is arbitrary.  Someone long ago in England (or more likely, ancient Rome and Greece) assigned certain letter symbols to portray certain sounds.  But other persons in other parts of the world assigned the same letter symbols to portray different sounds.

Since I discovered this, I teach letter “sounds” differently.  When I work with beginning readers, I try not to use words like “A,” “B,” and “C” when I refer to letters.  Instead I say the sounds those letters represent.  I say “a,” “b,” and “k,” and I ask students to do the same.

If you are teaching your child beginning reading in English, I recommend that you focus on the sound, not on the name of the letter.  The sound is what children need to know in order to read, not the name we give to the letter representing that sound.

Teaching sounds, not letters, is where reading begins

The basic “code” of written English is sounds represented by letters.  Learning this code begins with learning to recognize the sounds of English.  Combining these sounds into two- or three-sound words is where forming words begins.  And this can be taught to children before they ever see a letter.

Because learning the code of written English is so important, learning to recognize its sounds should not be rushed.  A lifetime of reading, a career, the ability to support a family—so much depends on being able to read.

Kids need plenty of time and various kinds of interactions with sounds to learn to recognize sounds.  The younger the children, the shorter their attention spans and the more need for game-like ways to learn.

But the learning doesn’t begin with letters.  It begins with sounds.

I recommend you use several strategies to help your children identify sounds, working with your child one-on-one using manipulatives.  Why?

Your child wants nothing more than to interact with you. Putting down your cell phone and sitting by her side shows your child you treasure her.  And working with her on reading skills shows her how important you consider that knowledge to be.

Research shows that the more senses we use, the more likely we are to remember. If a child can touch manipulatives, hear you say sounds, say them herself, see objects when she says sounds and feel your warm hug when she learns, the learning will stick. Plus she will be relaxed and happy, in an emotional state which is open to learning.

Some of the strategies I recommend to teach tiny children how sounds form words are these.

  • Work on a few sounds at a time with objects around the house. If your son’s name is Bill, for example, start with the “b” sound. Put a ball in your son’s hand and say “b” (the sound, not the letter) as in ball.  Put a banana in his hands and say “b” as in banana.  Do the same for other consonant sounds and for all the vowel sounds, even sounds we represent by two letters.  You can say “oi” (the sound) as in oink, or “ch” (the sound) as in child.  You can start this activity when a child is two or three without ever showing the child a letter.


  • Find objects in picture books which begin with basic English language sounds. ABC books are good for this, but the goal should not be to say “A is for apple.”  Rather it is to focus on the sounds in words.  At first start with words which begin with a sound, but then move on to small words which include that sound in the middle of CVC words like “cat” and “bag.”


  • When the child recognizes a handful of consonant sounds and a vowel sound such as “a,” say the “a” sound and a consonant sound slowly, one after the other. Make sounds which form a word like “a” and “t” or “a” and “x.”  Repeat the sounds a little faster each time until the child can hear the sounds come together.  Usually the child will say the word, but if not, help her to hear how the sounds come together to form a word.


All these activities can be done prior to ever showing your child a letter.  And they can be done with all 42 sounds in English.  Identifying sounds and understanding how they come together to form words is the basis of reading.  Save the ABCs for a later time.


The younger the student, the shorter the reading lesson

Many four-year-olds can learn to read, but their lessons must be short and involve games and manipulatives to keep them engaged.

That’s what I have learned from many years of teaching little kids to read.  After about ten minutes, many little ones lose interest or become distracted.  Then it is time to stop or to move on to a different approach.

For example, last week I worked with a four-year-old girl who is learning to associate sounds with letters and to form her first CVC words.  The lesson was supposed to last 45 minutes, but after 30 minutes, she could no longer sit still.  Here is what we did in that half hour:

  • We began using letter tiles which she loves to touch. She would pull one of the 26 letters I had presorted and tell me the sound associated with that letter.  She knew all but two, “v” and “y,” so we set aside those two and every few minutes we reviewed them.
  • Next, we reviewed last week’s lesson, making CVC words with tiles the vowel “a,” words like “cat,” “man” and “bad.” For five minutes she participated, moving some of the letters herself, but then she noticed my necklace and wanted to wear it.  I let her, but from her attention was diverted.  After another few minutes we moved on.
  • I had created BINGO cards using CVC words, so her next task was to identify the word I said from among the nine words on her card. This worked for a few minutes, but then she became distracted by the BINGO markers themselves—pieces of plastic I had cut out—and she started making patterns with them.  Enough of that.
  • We returned to making words with the tiles to no avail. I cut the lesson short, grateful that she had worked for a half hour.

With a five-year-old last week, the situation was much the same.

child playing card memory game

  • I corrected the few pages of phonics homework she had done while she dumped a container of letter tiles and put them in ABC order, chatting all the time.
  • She told me the sounds associated with each letter, reminding me that “k” and “c” make the same sound. She gets mixed up with “g” and “j,” so we set them aside to review as the lesson progressed.  I pulled letters to make words with beginning blends, such as “smell” and “stun.”  She said the words but in a few minutes, she lost interest.
  • We moved on to a workbook in which she read tiny sentences using CVC and CCVC words.
  • Finally I dictated a few words with blends in them and she wrote them.
  • A half hour passed, the scheduled time for her lesson.  Now she got her reward:  time to build houses out of the letter tiles.

For all elementary school aged children I plan several parts to each lesson, but for the youngest, I need one activity for each seven to ten minutes to keep them engaged.

Teaching vocabulary

If kids get low grades on reading comprehension, number one on my checklist is vocabulary. If kids don’t understand the words they read, how can they possibly understand the sentences containing those words?

But how to solve this problem?

CVC means consonant-vowel-consonant, and refers to one syllable, short vowel words beginning with a consonant.

For ELL students lacking basic English words, I make flash cards: a picture on one side and the word or words used to identify that picture on the other side. A picture of a child pitching a baseball might use the words “pitch.” “toss,” or “throw.”

I start with pictures of CVC words: “cat,” hat”, and “bat,” for example. Picturing nouns is easy. Picturing verbs like “sat” and “win” is harder, and often I need to demonstrate the actions.

With my students I use the Explode the Code phonics series, so I picture vocabulary words in the order in which the student encounters the words in the series. To these I add a few sight (Dolch) words so that we can make sentences, such as “A cat is not a dog.”

What I have discovered is that students can identify the pictures with just a bit of study, but they cannot use the words in sentences. When they see the word “pitch” they can move their arms in  pitching motions, but they cannot make a sentence using the word “pitch.”

Even for students learning advanced vocabulary words, like in the Wordly Wise series, this is true. They can define a word using a synonym but they have trouble using the word in a meaningful sentence.  (For many students using this series in school, their teachers do not assign the part of the lesson in which students write the new words in sentences, a big mistake.)

When I review already learned vocabulary words, I ask for synonyms, but also for usage. “It is a cat” works for beginning ELL learners. But “It is a catapult” does not work for older ELL students or for English-speaking students.

Another method to increase ELL learners’ vocabulary is to use picture word books meant for preschoolers. Because I want to use the vocabulary my students study to teach them reading, I prefer to begin with CVC words even though a word like “pizza” might be more frequently heard.

Kids need to know the facts

When I go to students’ homes to tutor them in reading and writing, I bring a pocket-sized  atlas.  That is because inevitably a geographical place is named in a reading passage, and when I ask the students if they know where “Scandinavia” or “New Zealand” is, they don’t know.

It’s not just knowledge of geography which students lack.   It’s when the American Revolution happened, or what news event happened in Egypt this past week or why it’s correct to say the sun is a relatively close star.

Kids just don’t know.

But this lack of knowledge has serious effects on their reading comprehension scores.  I was working on a reading passage with a middle schooler recently, and one of the questions was why Charles Darwin was mentioned but not identified in a passage about the Galapagos Islands.  The student shrugged.  “Who is Charles Darwin?” I asked.  The student shrugged again.  How could he answer the question if he didn’t know who Darwin is?

This problem becomes more acute when the student is from another country and from another first language (or if his parents are).  Years ago I taught two brothers, third and second graders, who were English language learners.  They were reading a passage about Halloween.  They had no idea what “Halloween” meant,  nor jack-o-lanterns nor trick-or-treating.  How could they answer the questions about Halloween in the reading passage?  I took them trick-or-treating on the next Halloween, but their parents were mystified why people would give their children candy.

Even if kids know the code of reading—the sounds of our language and how putting letters together forms words—they cannot score well on comprehension if they don’t know what the facts in the passage are, and what unstated facts are expected to be known as general background knowledge.

I was working with Georgia students using a passage from a New York State test.  The passage concerned winter, snow and sledding.  “I’ve never seen snow,” said my student.  I put the passage away.

If you have young children, read them not just fairy tales and nursery rhymes, but nonfiction—facts.  If you have middle schoolers or older, talk to them about current events, and if they don’t know where something is happening, point to the location on a map.  Use dinners or car rides to offer information.

Ignorance is no advantage in reading or in life.

How to get children to focus for a reading lesson

Is your child having trouble focusing during his or her reading lesson?  Here are some tips.

Establish a routine for the lessons, so the child knows what to expect. Be consistent with time and place.  Try working on the hardest thing first, such as reading lists of phonics words.  Try ending with a game—something fun but related to the work you are doing.  The younger the child, the more important it is to segment lessons into predictable parts.  If possible, identify all parts of the lesson before you begin so the child has an overview of what he will be working on.

If the child is distracted by sounds, while you work run a low, constant sound in the background—perhaps one of those baby sound machines of a heartbeat or of ocean waves.  Or run the dishwasher or a hair dryer.

If the child is distracted by sights, create a bland space to work in—soft colors, no patterned draperies, no posters. If there is a window, close the blinds or pull the shades to limit distractions.  Keep the surface of the child’s desk or table clear.

Consider whether the child will have trouble putting down electronic equipment. If so, save that part of the lesson to the end.Kneeling young girl is playing a portable video game.

Model the behavior you want from your child. If he is to read a paragraph, then you read a paragraph.  If he is to read a column of words, you read a column of words.

Before your lesson, encourage the child to have physical exercise—to run outside, to take a walk with you, or to bicycle, for example. The exercise will bring oxygen to the child’s brain and it will get rid of the “willies.”

Allow the child time to consider an answer to a question. If she seems to be having trouble, ask her to think out loud.  Perhaps give her hints, but let her struggle a bit to find the answer.

Allow the child to have a say in the “rules” of your lessons. If he wants a five minute break every ten minutes, allow it so long as he pays attention during the lesson.  If he wants to stand on the chair or  twist like a pretzel while he is reading, allow it so long as he is doing the work.  Kids with sensory integration issues need this leeway to hang in there.  Compromise so that you can achieve what you need to during each lesson and so that he feels like he is being heard and respected.

Before one part of the lesson ends, tell the child what will happen next. Let the child mentally prepare for what comes next.  Let the only surprises be good surprises.

Let the child wear comfortable clothes and work on a comfortable chair.  Put a box or a pile of books in front of the chair so the child has a place to rest her feet.

When you talk to the child, wait until she is looking at you, until you have her complete attention. Use small, easy to follow sentences.  Put one idea in each sentence.  If directions are three steps, say one step, allow the student to follow it, and then say the second step.  For some children too much incoming information is distracting.

Try to find game-like ways to teach. Children will be more cooperative if they think they are playing a game.

When and how to teach blends

Blends are two adjacent consonants in a word which maintain the sound each has when pronounced separately.  For example the “s” and “l” in “sled” are blends, but the “t” and “h” in “that” are not blends because the usual sounds of those letters are not maintained when they are used together.

The right time to teach blends is once students master CVC words (words formed by a consonant, vowel, and consonant, such as “cat”).   Make sure students can pronounce CVC words made with every vowel before moving on.

Teach beginning-of-word blends first.   End-of-word blends are much harder for students to learn.

The letter “s” is a good letter to start with since it forms more beginning-of-word blends than any other letter.  Use real CVC words which become real CCVC words when the “s” is added, such as nap/snap, led/sled, kid/skid, top/stop and lug/slug.  Little children are concrete learners, so being able to picture the words helps with the learning.

You can write the CVC word and then put an “s” in front of it.  Or you can use letter tiles, gradually moving the “s” closer and closer to the CVC word, saying the “s” sound and the CVC word separately at first and then more quickly until the child can hear the blend happen.

The child might consider the process a game if you slide the “s” letter tile gradually while you say the “s” sound and the CVC word.  Usually the child will shout out the blended word when he figures it out.  At first this will be after you say the blended word.  But as a child learns the skill of blending, he will shout out the word before you get close to saying the blended letters.  The process needs to be repeated with many consonants and many CVC words.

Some consonant blends are easier to hear than others.  CVC words that begin with “l” and “r” are easy to hear.  

Don’t be concerned if the child adds the blended letter to the end of the word, such as saying “leds” instead of “sled.”  Remind the child that the “s” is going at the beginning of the word, and repeat the process.  This is a common occurrence and will gradually lessen as the child practices blends.

Try to teach every letter that can be blended.  These include “b,” “c” “d,” “f,” “g,” “p,” “s,” and “t.”

Don’t teach three-letter blends at  this point.  They are much harder to hear than two-letter blends.  Wait until the child is farther along in learning to read.